Mental Health for Farmers

Discussion with an Expert

Rooted Farmers
Rooted Farmers10 min read

Most farmers will affirm that farming is both the most wonderful and most difficult work they have ever undertaken. Our focus here is on coping with some of the challenges that often accompany this line of work.

While we should always be conscious about the impact of mental health on our work and our community, it is even more important in today’s COVID-19 climate to maintain an open dialogue on these issues.

We encourage you to read through our conversation with psychologist Evan Bick, PsyD, below. Evan was kind enough to share some of his thoughts and strategies around how we can work through some of the unique challenges that we face in agriculture. Our exchange below is intended to help reduce the stigma around this topic, and to encourage you to seek out resources to help maintain your own mental health as you work to support the communities around you.

If you or someone you know are struggling with any thoughts of self-harm or suicide, you should phone 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

Farming is often an all-consuming profession (or hobby). Many farmers live on the property that they are farming, so there is no physical boundary between them and their work. Separately, as a generalization, we farmers tend to be the type of personality that has difficulty knowing when to stop. Work/life balance is a consistent challenge for most of us, but it is made more difficult to overcome without some of the more typical work/life boundaries in place. Are there strategies that might be helpful to us in recognizing when we should draw a line?

It’s important for everyone to find ways to create effective boundaries between the various aspects of their lives, for at least a couple of different reasons. Perhaps most importantly, it’s just not possible to fulfill the fantasy of being 100% committed to work, 100% committed to friends and family, and 100% committed to taking care of ourselves. Another reason is that trying to get everything done at the same time, all the time, usually makes us less effective in each of those areas. While we’re all discovering this in the age of coronavirus, working from home, etc., farmers have always had a couple of obstacles that make this particularly hard. As you mentioned, living and working in the same place makes it ‘easy’ for these different domains to bleed into each other.

I encourage the people I work with to think about three things in order to maintain the work-life boundaries that make it easier to function effectively. First, be explicit with yourself about when you’re working, and when you’re not working. This could take the form of a schedule or simply setting rules for yourself (like “when I’m in the kitchen, I’m not working”). Of course, what this looks like would be different for everyone.

The second strategy, which might sound ridiculous, is to multitask as little as possible! One of the benefits of drawing these effective boundaries is that it allows you to be fully present in what you’re doing in the moment. If you’re spending time with your family, for example, and notice your attention wandering back to unfinished work tasks, gently remind yourself to focus on what’s happening in front of you.

The third strategy is to give yourself permission to put things aside when you need to! It can be really difficult to allow yourself to, for example, take time for exercise when there are work tasks you could theoretically be doing, but it’s important to recognize that making time for each of these roles will be helpful in the long run.

There are meaningful layers of this field of work that are out of our control, but also have a tremendous impact on our ability to produce quality product. The weather, pests, economic pressures, or simply time. What would you recommend to someone who might be starting to feel overwhelmed by these stressors that can derail our best-laid plans? Are there coping tactics that can help us to manage how we approach these issues?

One of the easiest ways to get frustrated is to be in a situation where we feel responsible for things we can’t control, and of course farming of any type is more susceptible to this problem than lots of other professions—weather, insects, or just changes in the market can have an important impact on how successful you feel as a farmer. One way to push back against this tendency is to focus on aspects of your performance that actually are within your control—asking yourself “am I doing the best that I can, regardless of what the outcome is?”

Similarly, it’s often helpful to evaluate yourself by how much effort you are putting into a task, rather than the results. Effort is nearly always within your control, but results may not be.

Farming is a very physical job, so it is easy to convince ourselves that we are getting “exercise” in our day-to-day, but I suspect that manual labor does not meet the quota for what you would consider healthy physical maintenance. Can you talk a bit about the intersection between physical health and mental health, and how we might reframe our thinking about how we are approaching our own physical health? What are some of the items you would put on your “must do” list for physical health if you were a farmer?

Exercise is another area where it can be difficult to separate work from other aspects of life, particularly when work seems to provide all the physical exertion you can handle. While I’m not an expert on the relationship between physical exercise and mood, it’s worth noting that not all activity is the same when it comes to physical and mental health. In particular, cardiovascular exercise seems to have more of a positive effect on mood than other types of physical exertion, and it’s easy to imagine that the types of highly-repetitive movements that come up in farming could contribute to injuries in the long run if you’re not able to incorporate other forms of exercise.

In addition to the straightforward physical benefits, it’s also helpful to think about exercise as a way to make time for yourself.

Social media is a big marketing driver for our industry, so it is a necessary tool for our businesses, but there are a number of studies that have shown that social media can be damaging to self-esteem and mental health. Are there strategies (or tools) that we can use to learn how to use social media in a healthy way, or limit our use to only that which is necessary for our business? (Think apps, or time limits, or alternatives to mindless scrolling)

It would be useful to try to separate how you use social media as a business tool, which is an important part of running a small business, from how you use it to connect with friends, etc. If you can, it might be helpful to consider scheduling social media time to avoid letting these different aspects of your life blur into each other.

One thing to pay attention to, particularly when using social media tools to build connections, is our tendency to compare ourselves to what we see friends and role models post on social media. It’s easy to become frustrated when we compare the highlights of our friends’ or role models’ lives to the challenges that we have to face day-to-day, so I often encourage people to remember that what we see on social media probably isn’t a direct comparison to our own lives.

Similarly, social media presents a lot of opportunities for negative comparisons to other farmers, who seem to ‘have it all,’ at least on Instagram. It’s helpful to recognize both sides of the thoughts that come up in this situation—not just “oh, that person’s life seems so great” but also “I should be more like them” or “I’m not doing as well as they are.” Ask yourself, “Is that true? What does their experience have to do with me?”

For farmers who are pursuing this as a full-time career (or even those who aren’t!), it can feel daunting – or even negligent – to consider taking time away from the operation that we are responsible for running to focus on ourselves. Whether that comes in the form of time with friends and family, or basic self-care, or indulgences that might help us restore and reset. The idea that “if I don’t do it, no one else will,” can be paralyzing when we begin to consider these as options. What would you say to someone who is having trouble justifying their own time away from their farm work?

At the risk of sounding like a cliché, running any kind of business is a marathon, not a sprint! I can think of a couple of ways to consider reframing the concerns you mentioned about “if I don’t do it, no one else will.” The first is to recognize that part of successfully running a business is to figure out how to run it sustainably, and one of the things that needs to be sustained is you! It’s just not possible to work at 100% effort forever. A helpful tool can be to ask yourself “what would I say to a friend who was dealing with these problems?”

One other perspective, of course, is to think about the fact that feeling like a complete person probably requires taking some time to address the other aspects of life you mentioned, in addition to focusing on work. So, I would boil these two points down to say that setting effective boundaries between work and other parts of your life is a) necessary to be successful in running a business in the long run and b) something that you deserve whether or not it helps the business!

There can be a stigma around asking for help in an industry that is often characterized by its toughness as a badge of honor. At what point should we reflect on our own mental health and consider seeking some outside help from a trained professional? Are there signs that we should look for in ourselves – or our colleagues, employees, or friends – that might be indicators that we should loop in a therapist or doctor? How should we think about the stigma?

There are two ways to think about this question. First, we can think about some of the key symptoms of anxiety and depression, which are the types of mental health problems most likely to arise from work or family stress. Key symptoms of depression include negative thoughts about yourself, lack of motivation or energy, changes in sleep or appetite, and difficulty with attention or concentration. Thoughts about death or suicide can also be a symptom of depression and should be discussed immediately with a health care provider or emergency services.

Symptoms of anxiety might include worry that feels out of control, or a sudden rush of fear or panic that seems to come “out of nowhere.”

Another way to think about mental health concerns is to be on the lookout for changes from what feels normal for you. You are almost certainly your best resource for noticing changes that might be helpful to discuss with a health care provider or therapist.

Unfortunately, the stigma that still exists around mental health can be an obstacle to seeking treatment, and it certainly can be hard to admit that things aren’t working the way we want them to. It’s helpful to think about mental health treatment as a way to get back on track towards your goals, rather than a sign that something is “broken” or that you’re weak.

What are some resources out there for folks who might be looking for some outside help from a mental health professional, but aren’t sure how to go about that?

Primary care doctors are a great resource for getting started in talking to a mental health professional. Many primary care practices have mental health therapists and prescribers “built in” to the practice, which makes it easier to get started.

One benefit of the coronavirus outbreak, as strange as it is to say, is that many therapists and insurance companies are transitioning to new models of providing care, such as virtual visits/telehealth, and hopefully this will continue to make access easier in the future, particularly for people living in rural areas who may have difficulty accessing care.

You can also use a resource like Phychology Today to find a therapist near you, or other helpful online resources like Headspace and Talkspace.